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Whicker: Lakers play with the effort the rest of season will demand

At last, they played as if they recognized the gravity of the situation.

And, at least, they stopped falling.

The Lakers, in fact, reached up and regained sole possession of fifth place in the Western Conference standings on Monday night. If you’re wondering why that is so strut-worthy, you haven’t been around lately.

The purple-and-gold welcome mat that was defenseless against Sacramento and Toronto came to life and played like wounded underdogs Monday night, which is not their accustomed stance but fit quite well.

They beat the Denver Nuggets, who had won nine of 10, by a 93-89 score and distanced themselves, however temporarily, from the pre-playoff play-in tournament.

“It was just the heart, the togetherness,” said Wesley Matthews who, with Marc Gasol, escaped purgatory and served the Lakers well in the second half. “We put our feet in the ground, put them in the sand, whatever that saying is.

“Nobody is going to feel sorry for the Lakers. We have to build on what we did. You have to play with a sense of desperation. When you do that, the ball finds energy. That’s how we played tonight.”

Stripped of options without LeBron James and Dennis Schröder, the Lakers put Monday’s game into the mitts of Anthony Davis, who had missed 11 of 16 shots in Sunday’s eyesore loss to the Raptors. They placed him on the left side of the line and made Nikola Jokic and, later, JaVale McGee play honest defense, and Davis finally looked commanding, with 16 first-half points. He wound up with 25, but his biggest play was an improbable, Beamon-esque lunge that managed to deflect a 3-point shot by Facuno Campazzo at the end.

Frazzled for most of the game, Denver uncorked a 14-2 run in the fourth quarter and actually could have gotten to within one point on Michael Porter Jr.’s 3-pointer. It was disallowed because Campazzo was whistled, oddly, for an illegal pick on Davis.

Luck also visited the Lakers, for the first time in a while, when Jalen Horton-Tucker drove into the lane, ahead by two. He offered an off-balance reverse layup that was kept alive by Gasol, who was being blocked out by Jokic. Horton-Tucker then grabbed it and scored for a four-point lead with 15.1 seconds left, and rolled his eyes in gratitude.

“I’ve got to thank God for the way that worked out,” Horton-Tucker said.

Gasol played 17 minutes with 10 points and seven rebounds and a lovely, two-handed outlet pass that Matthews handled and converted like a wide receiver. Matthews hit all three of his shots, including a 3-pointer from Gasol’s pass. They’ve faded deep into the Lakers’ woodwork lately, but on Monday they played like veterans do in playoff situations. Gasol now terms himself “Mr. Wolf,” the fixer played by Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction”, a guy who cleans everything up.

“It seems like we’ve played almost 1,000 different styles this year with guys being out,” Matthews said. “Basketball is like life. It’s unpredictable. You go on with it or it’ll go on without you. We have to get back to scrapping and clawing.”

On Sunday, James had said the biggest issue for the Lakers was “health.” He still is a proponent of the Messiah theory, that he and Davis will bring fresh, if scarred, legs into the playoffs and heal the Lakers with magic hands.

Betonline.com decreed that the Lakers were 7-2 choices to win the NBA title. Those are the shortest odds in the West, and they were posted before it was learned that Schröder will be out for 10 to 14 days.

James’ cryptic estimate that “I’m never going to be 100 percent” was difficult to un-hear, considering that he was back on the court 20 games after his high ankle sprain. He was adequate but not royal against Sacramento and Toronto, and then he left halfway through the fourth quarter Sunday, not to play again until Thursday against the Clippers, if then.

James also made it clear he opposed the play-in tournament for teams that finish 7 through 10 in each conference, saying its inventor “should be fired.”

That’s not a nice thing to say about Commissioner Adam Silver, and it also contradicts the way James viewed the play-in from afar, before it threatened to include him.

In a nutshell, No. 7 plays No. 8 and the winner gets into the playoffs as the 7-seed. The loser plays the winner of a knockout game between No. 9 and No. 10. The survivor of that also gets into the playoffs as the 8-seed.

It’s not an exercise fit for a King. But if a team with James and Davis can’t win one of two games against the likes of Memphis, San Antonio and Golden State, maybe a few others should be fired.

Speaking of “others,” the accompanying Lakers have left the door yawning. The injuries were the cue for Kyle Kuzma to play All-Star basketball. He largely has not. Andre Drummond hasn’t had time to get fully assimilated. He will get that time if the Lakers avoid the play-in and gain valuable practice time.

The Messiah theory is also hard to accept for those who have watched the West lately. In Phoenix, Chris Paul looks more like an MVP with each victory, and Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton are responding accordingly. In Utah, things have been rockier with Donovan Mitchell hurt, but he will return for the playoffs, and so will Bojan Bogdanovic, who wasn’t around last season when the Jazz took a 3-1 series lead over Denver and then lost.

Then there’s Denver, which might have the toughest chin in the league. Jamal Murray went down with an ACL and the Nuggets won nine of their next 10, with Michael Porter Jr. averaging 25.4 points. If that continues, Jokic can start practicing his multi-lingual MVP speeches.

“We’ve had a lot of guys contribute,” said Michael Malone, the Denver coach, “but this is just an endorsement of Nikola Jokic’s MVP candidacy. He has put us on his back.”

Note to James and Davis, in case they’re tempted: That’s just an expression.

25 PTS and the game-clinching block for @AntDavis23 in the @Lakers W vs. Denver! #LakeShow pic.twitter.com/Wup4et8mMA

— NBA (@NBA) May 4, 2021

Talen Horton-Tucker stays with it and rattles in the reverse to seal the @Lakers win! pic.twitter.com/oRHUi0APK6

— NBA (@NBA) May 4, 2021

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